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Who controls Afghanistan? Neighbouring nations are preparing for the conflict to explode

Credit: Hashang Hashimi/AFP/Getty


July 16, 2021   6 mins

Would the Americans have left Afghanistan so precipitously had they known what was about to happen? Over one quarter of Afghan districts have fallen from government control. Local warlords are raising militias to protect their own criminal and narcotic interests — many of them the very same actors who created the chaos of the civil war in the 1990s (or their sons), and war criminals to a man. Meanwhile the Afghan military is unable to supply many of its troops.

The speed of developments has been dizzying, and is forcing neighbouring countries and international organisations to plan on the hoof. Many have opted to close their embassies and consulates, and evacuate their staff. The UN is pulling out most of its internationals — the UNDP, for example, is down to a handful in the country. Multiple border crossings — with Tajikistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and (on Wednesday) with Pakistan — have fallen to Taliban control, blocking customs revenue which is practically the only source of government income except for international aid.

The Taliban, a highly decentralised franchise-style operation, but with an excellent social media team, have been broadcasting videos of Talibs repairing roads in Kandahar, treating captured government soldiers well, and ogling vast mounds of captured American-sourced rifles and ammunition. The most poignant videos are of young Talibs enjoying swings and slides in children’s playgrounds, perhaps savouring for the first time the childhoods they never had.

But nobody is fooled: this week a gruesome video surfaced showing Taliban militants executing surrendering Afghan government soldiers. The veracity of this content was denied by the Taliban but confirmed by CNN. It’s clear that the advance of the Taliban is a complete disaster for the young, educated, progressive generation, who are used to the internet, and music, and mixing between the sexes — to normal life, in other words. And it’s doubly worse for the women, who, under Taliban rule, would be unable to, among other things, leave the house without a male relative .

Many of this generation are making increasingly desperate attempts to flee the country. The US has made belated efforts to accelerate the relevant visa programme and get them out of the country, but it is bittersweet for many Afghans: they feel utterly betrayed by the United States and its allies. Meanwhile the Taliban leadership, based in Qatar, have been touring the neighbouring countries, meeting with government officials, acting like a government in waiting.

But what has happened is government weakness, rather than Taliban strength. Many of the districts that have recently ‘fallen’ were remote districts, difficult to supply, and only possible to maintain with western air support. In June, the Defence Ministry decided to retrench from many of these areas in order to concentrate on strategic defendable areas (a retrenchment the Americans had been encouraging the Afghan government to make for over a year). Now, the government still controls the cities, and has an air force, which the US has stated they will continue to support (with spares, contractors, and repair facilities in other countries). The US will also continue channelling massive amounts of financial aid into the Afghan government. After the USSR pulled out of the nation in 1989, the Afghan government managed to survive with Soviet funding — until 1992, when that funding dried up. And it will probably survive now, at least in the medium term.

The deluge of videos and reports ricocheting around social media shows that the Taliban is a fractured movement. Local aid workers and contractors report that they are being taxed by the “Taliban” to continue their projects in an area, and then the next day being taxed by other “Taliban”. Some government prisoners are allowed to go home, others are executed where they stand. In some areas locals are left alone, in others they are being whipped for minor infringements. At a local level, many Talibs are fighting for individual, rather than “national” reasons.

At a higher level, there appears to be an internal argument within the Taliban between the political and military strands of the movement. The political leadership, conscious that Afghanistan will need international aid on an ongoing basis, seem to be pursuing negotiations in order to become a legitimate government recognised by the global community. The military side, flush with their recent advances, are convinced they can take over Afghanistan by force, much like they did in the 1990s.

It’s also not clear to what extent different factions within the Taliban are working together, or will work together if they get closer to government. A range of groups with very different interests united against American occupation — now that it’s over, they’re likely to fall on each other. This is especially true when you consider that the Taliban political leadership just announced that they will ban opium production and trafficking if they get into power — many factions, like the Mansur drug networks, depend on the trade.

The most likely scenario, then, is a stalemate, with the government controlling the cities and most of the ring road, and eventually regaining control of their border posts, which the Taliban don’t appear to know how to operate anyway. Any negotiations between the Taliban political leadership and the government are unlikely to be successful. There are just too many sticking points, like women’s rights; neither the Taliban nor the government can concede enough while maintaining the support — from the military wing of the Taliban and the Kabul progressives, respectively.

But it’s not just Afghan politics that’ll shape the aftermath of America’s withdrawal. Geopolitics abhors a vacuum. All eyes are on China, a nation with huge interests in Afghanistan — centred around minerals, counter terrorism, and connectivity via its Belt and Road Initiative. Like every other surrounding power, it has hedged: its offer of development funds to rebuild infrastructure has been made to both the Taliban and the Kabul government. In return the Taliban leadership have declared the Uighurs an “internal affair” for China — an astonishing about-face for a movement that hosted Uighur separatists in the 1990s and 2000s. Given some factions are distinctly pro-Uighur, this declaration may well make it even more difficult for the Taliban to hold together.

Until recently, China outsourced a lot of its Afghanistan policy to its ally Pakistan, but this might be about to change. Pakistan’s actions in supporting the military wing of the Taliban are seriously increasing the chance of a civil war. Completely missing from most media — as they breathlessly chart the advance of the Taliban —are multiple credible reports of Pakistanis fighting against Afghan government forces. Meanwhile, Talibs wounded or killed in Afghanistan are being taken back to Pakistan for treatment or burial — something even admitted by the Pakistani Interior Minister in late June. But Pakistan’s government has realised (not for the first time) that it doesn’t control its proxies in Afghanistan. It will likely come under increasing pressure from China to do just that. Bizarrely, the US did little to reduce Pakistani influence over the years, preferring instead to fund the Afghan government, at the same time as funding the Pakistani government, who were funding the Taliban, who were fighting the Afghan government and NATO. No wonder Afghans are disgusted with the US.

Pakistan’s ideal scenario is a negotiated settlement leading to a friendly Taliban government in Kabul — a deeply worrying prospect to Pakistan’s old nemesis India, which has a long-standing and deep relationship with the Afghan government. India has reached out to the Taliban leadership, unsuccessfully, and is now actively considering training Afghan troops, as well as other means of supporting the government military effort. Afghanistan to India is, of course, a way to challenge Pakistan’s regional foreign policy.

Afghanistan is, then, an arena in which conflicts between multiple nations are playing out. There’s also jostling between China and Russia. The latter doesn’t share a border with Afghanistan but its proxy, Tajikistan, does. A couple of weeks ago, over 1000 Afghan soldiers fled to the neighbouring nation, raising concerns that the conflict would spill over. Memories of Tajikistan’s own civil war, in the 1990s, are still raw. Russian troops in Tajikistan are considering deploying to the border to help seal it, with the very highest levels of the two militaries in discussion. In the last decade, China has been steadily usurping Russia’s traditional influence in the Central Asian states; it’s not clear how a Russia military deployment so close to China would be viewed in Beijing.

Plenty of other countries have skin in the game, too. For instance, Iran’s traditional proxies in Afghanistan — the Shia Hazara — have among the most to lose to a Taliban takeover, because the Sunni Taliban view the Shia as basically non-Muslims. It is inconceivable that Iran would leave them hanging — particularly after many Hazara recently fought in Iranian-organised brigades in the Syrian conflict. They’ll support and further arm the Hazaras as the conflict progresses, pouring yet more weaponry into a country where the price of a Kalashnikov is already among the cheapest in the world.

In the midst of all this, there’s a distinct lack of global power-broking. The one organisation that could provide a framework for regional political discussions, the UN, is largely absent, not being the fastest moving bureaucracy. And so, everyone is stuck: assessing the situation, hedging their bets, and waiting. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is clinging on for dear life. It’s likely to survive, but there’s a distinct possibility it will collapse and Afghanistan will fragment, with some areas going to various parts of the Taliban franchise, some areas going to local warlords, and at best a rump Kabul government remaining. At this point, the nation would be a free-for-all, with outside powers diving in to protect their interests and support their proxies in the hope that they can gain ascendancy — or just survive. And this chaos would be the worst of all possible outcomes, for everyone, but above all, for the Afghans.


Mike Martin is a former British army officer and War Studies Visiting Fellow at King’s College London. His latest book is Why We Fight.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Good article. What an amazing place it was under the King, Like Iran was, and Iraq, and Syria, and Libya.
KSA, Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf States, all pretty much thrive under their monarchies in any comparison.
Having read of the political evolution from Post WWII on, how the West wanted to democratize, to De-Colonize, and generally kick the stability out before something solid was made to replace it, is a very sad story now we see its results.

Jacques Rossat
JR
Jacques Rossat
2 years ago

IMO, brilliant and spot-on analysis. Three main points I specially agree with :
“had they known (the US) what was about to happen?” Of course ; no need to be a PhD in Oriental studies to know the probable outcome. A 2-trillion dollar pulling of the plug
“But what has happened is government weakness, rather than Taliban strength.” Yes indeed. Why is violent islamism spreading all over a lot of poor countries ? Because none of the concerned regimes has any good record in developing the land, helping peasants et urban majorities, more concerned with funneling foreign aid to their off-shore accounts.
“Taliban is a fractured movement.” Afghanistan seems to have been a clanic society for centuries and doesn’t seem willing to change.
One more time, good article ; thanks.

John Hope
John Hope
2 years ago

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of world history could for-see the bloodshed and chaos that would/will follow a full American withdrawal from Afghanistan. You only have to go back to 1975 and look at what happened in South East Asia when America walked away. The Taliban may end up making the Khmer Rouge look like UNICEF.

Last edited 2 years ago by John Hope
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  John Hope

NO. The Khmer Rouge were pathologically self destructive because an entire new philosophy, ideology, religion (as it were) was foisted on them by corruption from outside Communist countries – one they took up and thus disregarded their own thousands of years culture and ways for. They lost all grounding in themselves and became beasts as their cultural compass was lost. (I worked with Cambodians a good bit, in an odd line of work, we called them Cambos, something I imagine would be very wrong today)

This is rather the opposite, the new ways which were, sort of, imposed on them, the Western cosmology that is exceedingly alien to their traditional beliefs, is being replaced by a Return to traditional ways – Pashtunwali.

(I would say do a wiki on it, but as I have known for years wiki is Orwellian in its agenda promoting – but still you may get the gist (I have not read the wiki as I hate how wiki misleads subtly, and frog like we simmer in their quasi-truths till we are altered ourselves and my understanding of Pashtunwali comes first hand)

This means great retributions may be inflicted – to everyone’s loss, but if you know how Japanese sympathizers in Philippines and China, or German ones in Europe, (Ukraine!) were treated post WWII, it was bad, and I hope the Talib go for reconciliation instead of revenge. (although with the Divider in Chief in USA I doubt this will be helped by USA)

SNAFU, FUBAR, are the words to describe the entire situation (using military jargon, which is suiting), and it lays at the feet of the Western Arrogance and cultural ignorance, (and KSA religious teaching/funding, and Pakistani ISI, that rogue organization) and let us hope the West will look to help, and not just make it all worse by just trying what failed all over, again and again, as they are wont to do, but by working on reality, not what is politically better back at home.

Chris Scott
Chris Scott
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Countries and the way they organise takes time; they evolve. Foisting an ideology on a people, be it CRT or ‘democracy’, never ends well. Remember the Taliban are the result of years of foreign interference in Afghanistan. They’re conservative in the extreme caused by the necessity of fighting the Soviets and the West. Hopefully the Taliban will take control of their country, and given time it will find peace and develop into the society it was in the 70s.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

The US and its Afghan allies had 20 years to re-build Afghan society and institutions. They failed miserably. No one has any faith in a corrupt government whose main purposes are to traffic drugs and steal aid. This article does not consider why this should be the case.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

An excellent and informative article. There are two possibilities. Either the Americans (and UK) left Afghanistan not knowing what was about to happen or they did know. Not knowing is only possible if the decision makers live in a bubble that excludes all the knowledge about Afganistan that has been accumlated since 1842. This would be a structural failure in leadership that bodes ill on decision making on every other issue. Knowing is more plausible and evidences incompetance in failing to implement any remotely coherent exit plan over the last 20 years despite the very substantial expenditure incurred.
I suspect a mix of the two and the common factor is indifference. Governments are not driven by electorates to study, learn and implement the best outcome for any situation. Electorates are not sufficiently well educated to collectively require more thought and care from their politicians. The tribalism that dooms Afganistan by undermining intelligent government is also destructive in the US and UK. Humans collectively stick to the easy beliefs available to them from their (tribal) experience despite their individual capacity to learn.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

This essay is a very nice descriptive account, but so what? Is there a proposition?

Jacques Rossat
Jacques Rossat
2 years ago

The main implied conclusion is, alas, there’s no proposition to make.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Why is it that ruling/governing class are unable to develop an effective fighting capability. In Vietnam between1945 and 1970, the ruling /governing class was unable to develop an effective fighting capability nor has the ruling/governing class in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021 Yet in 1919, the ruling/governing class in Germany created the Freicorps, which united rich and poor and defeated the Marxists.
A SAS sergeant asked the question ” What is more dangerous, a pair of scissors or a sub- machine gun? This is the wrong question, the correct one is ” Who is more dangerous, the person holding the scissors or the machine gun?”.
Genghis Khan said it is not the height the walls or the number of soldiers on them but the fighting spirit of those on the walls”.
If a ruling/governing class is corrupt, venal and is only interested in enriching it’s family members, lacks the figthing spirit to serve in combat and die, why should the poor ? Any regime/ civilisation lasts only as long as the ruling class is prepared to be trained in skill at arms and die protecting it. At The peak of Rome’s Power, Consuls and Emperors were willing to die fo it.

Andrew Fisher
AF
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Yes, a lot of truth there. You need to have the will to fight on and to win, with motivated troops, for a start. The US was whipping the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong, millions of deaths in the latter compared with tens of thousands of US deaths. The 1968 Tet Offensive was a military defeat for the Communists, though the Communist propagandists had it otherwise.

It rarely gets mentioned, but the modern successful state of the Republic of Korea is the counter example to Vietnam. Communism could have been defeated in the latter as well and a free Republic of South Vietnam could have developed and even democratised over time.

But the national consensus in a democratic society just wasn’t there for the US to continue the war in that period. And any such effort – even if it were desirable – looks totally impossible today, whether under Biden, Trump or whoever.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I wouls suggest that it is a difference between a land owning class class which has military obligations to the state such as, Classical Greeks, Roman Senators and European Aristocracy which provided military leaders and a mercantile ruling class which may be wealthy but cowardly and is not prepared to die to defend the state. Land owning means one is tied and one’s wealth is not portable. The decline of Rome can be seen by 250 AD when the Equites and Patrician classes are no longer prepared to to have their sons die defending the frontier and pay foreigners such as Goths to defend Rome. Eventually the Goths became the power.
Why should the poor of the West die defending the rich of another country if their sons are not prepared to die? Let the wives and Mothers of the ruling classes who wish her military support have the same attitude of Spartan Women ” Come back carrying your shield or be carried on it. ”
The below is saying by a Spartan woman
GYRTIASWhen a messenger came from Crete bringing the news of the death of Acrotatus,​10 she said, “When he had come to the enemy, was he not bound either to be slain by them or to slay them? It is more pleasing to hear that he died in a manner worthy of myself, his country, and his ancestors than if he had lived for all time a coward.”11

Another, hearing that her son had fallen on the field of battle, said:15

“Let the poor cowards be mourned, but, with never a tear do I bury

You, my son, who are mine, yea, and are Sparta’s as well.”

Plutarch • Sayings of Spartan Women (uchicago.edu)
Perhaps we should insist on politicians who vote for war insisting their children serve in combat roles? If children of politicians were killed because of bad decisions and equipment, there would be changes.